Since the rise of the famed “D.C. hardcore” scene of the mid-80s, led by the highly influential speed-screams of Minor Threat and the subsequent Fugazi-fueled art-core of Dischord Records’ catalog and its DIY ethics, it can be easy to forget that, along with many other urban centers, Washington, D.C., had an evolving new music revolution happening back to the mid-1970s. Also, considering how influential and popular the D.C. hardcore aesthetic has become, it’s kind of amazing a documentary on it hasn’t been fully realized, until now. Two D.C. scene veterans—archivist Paul Bishow and indie filmmaker James Schneider—have spent the better part of 10 years compiling rare footage and interviews into Punk The Capital, a documentary film that aims to highlight those that came before “D.C. hardcore,” that scene’s ascendance in the ‘90s and its reverberations today. A recently completed Kickstarter campaign raised more than expected, and it looks like the film will wrap and hopefully secure distribution later this year. We caught up with James Schneider as he was realizing how well the Kickstarter campaign was doing.
I assumed right when I heard that Kickstarter was happening that you guys would reach your goal no problem. I think those who like Dischord Records and that whole scene really LOVED it, and many who grew up with it are reaching the age where maybe they have the extra bucks in their pockets to pitch in to see that the scene gets a proper documentary.
Yeah, maybe, but we just went in hoping for the best, and were really surprised by the huge response we’ve got (the campaign has since ended). Dave Grohl giving us some hype and Shepard Fairey doing the donation gift poster I’m sure helped!
So, what is your past in the D.C. scene, and how did you decide to come around making this movie with Paul?
The project really came about organically. Paul and I met at some of his I Am Eye Film Forum screenings which were kind of a staple around town for any kind of indie or underground film screening. He started that in the early ‘80s. He would show independent films, usually small 8mm stuff, at different venues, mostly at a place called DC Space. He and his friends would show their films that they were making (including Jon Spencer’s penis piercing film). And they would bring guests in to show their films, people like Nick Zedd and Richard Kern. “One buck for one film” was our slogan. And that continued for decades actually, and I met Paul in the nineties at one of those screenings. So we basically met around film, and we worked together on different projects. He helped me a lot with my first movie, Blue Is Beautiful [a doc about the Make-Up], in 1997. Then I started discovering his films that he had made, a lot of them with these punk bands circa 1979/80. When I discovered all those films, it became obvious that we should work together. And it struck me that there wasn’t really a good, full DC punk film. So we actually started talking about this probably around 1999, and then it took a long time to ramp it up.
I know that 2003 is around the time you really started kicking in with it. Was there ever a point where you were like, “We have to get this thing done,” or did you just let it run its course? Because often there’s a cultural window of interest in something sort of underground that happened 15-20 years ago, but then that window can close again. Was there any worry that you had a window that might close?
I did kind of feel that way. But this film did not have a production company or anything like that. There were restrictions in terms of being able to dedicate ourselves to it, because this is a real time black-hole, and no budget. It’s just a huge amount of collecting and research. I mean, we’ve been working on it steadily over the years, and basically what we’ve really built is an archive of footage as well, with histories and interviews. So it’s taken a long time to collect all the material. But only as of about late 2011 did I start dedicating myself to finishing the film full-time.
When was the decision to do the Kickstarter campaign?
Well, we decided to wait to do the Kickstarter campaign until we could really see what the film was going to look like. That didn’t mean we had it edited or anything, but we had the material in our hands, so we knew we really could feel out what the story was going to be like and what the feel of the thing would be, so that people knew what they would be contributing to. So it’s a great position to be in because we can really finish this thing as promised.
You mentioned that a lot of this stuff was Paul’s personal footage. I assume that maybe there was other footage that was found.
Oh, there has been tons of that! There’re about ten different filmmakers who have donated all this great footage, so it comes from a lot of different sources, though all regional. We wanted to keep it to people really kind of involved in the DC scene particularly. I’m sure there’s even more footage out there of these DC acts playing in other towns, and things still keep popping up. There’s a lot of great unseen footage that’s going to come into the movie.
It’s interesting because, you grew up in an era where if you actually saw film footage of some cult band from 1966 or whatever, it would be incredible, almost unbelievable. But now, essentially everybody has a camera in their pocket, bands are documented ad nauseum. So you wonder if half our interest in obscure bands derives from the fact that there isn’t much existing footage of them, they’re a mystery.
Well in a way, the interest comes from the films that survive. Like there are bands like the Enzymes, for example, which now might fall under the category of an “Afro-Punk” band that were purely influential only locally for a brief period of time, and are still not very well-known outside of D.C. We have a lot of them in our film, maybe even more than we would have otherwise just because we have so much great footage of them. So in some ways these documentaires can be guided by that, simply by what exists, what documentation survived. And the D.C. punk scene, the parts of it that were the best documented, are the parts that, in a sense, wound up ruling history. So the documentation really does make a big difference in how history is presented.
Do you have any plans to find a university or a library who would take all this stuff for you and make sure it’s in safe storage?
Yes, we’re working with the D.C. public library, and they’ve started a music archive. It’s an exciting thing, and actually a couple of different libraries are going to work together to get that off the table. There’s a big sense of importance about this history and, I think, a lot of respect for it here.
The story of “D.C. hardcore” specifically has become so predominant that you forget that, like any other scene, there were bands of a different ilk before it that influenced the more well-known scene. Like the way in the late 70s that bands like the Slickee Boys had to kind of grope and find their own sound.
Yeah, it’s really interesting. It’s been great for us to work with the different generations because they each have perspectives on one another. We haven’t had to look for a lot of out of town perspectives because the perspectives between the different generations here are already enough for this one film. It creates a great dynamic in the film.
As an outsider of the D.C. scene, when people speak of it, it’s so dominated by “the scene, man,” and the politics of different bands, and Dischord Records mainly, that kind of thing. Do you ever wonder if any of that obscures the wider musical innovations that came out of the city over time? Do you ever think that “the scene” and the DIY ethics, etc. end up being more known than some of the actual music and art that came out of it?
There has been a dominant narrative regarding the D.C. scene, and I think it’s hard to separate because you have an earlier generation, for example, from before 1979 that was already doing a lot of strong DIY work, like there was the Go-Go scene, which was a whole other sound, and more. So you already had this sort of independent spirit that was rising up, and whether others get enough credit or not is not necessarily for me to say. I think there was a lot other stuff going on that’s important to talk about, there’re a lot of bands later on that were doing great work, though I think the bar was basically set pretty high early on with bands like the Bad Brains. But even before that, D.C. bands were known for their work ethic. And we felt like better-known bands would come down from New York, and get blown off the stage by bands here. So I think there was this strong identity and work ethic within bands that started already before 1979 and then continued on, and bands on Dischord as well were inspired by all that history. And a lot of great bands were coming up around town that weren’t on Discord records too.
Were you ever in a band yourself?
Yeah, I was in a few bands that never really took off. But I was really more part of the skate scene in the early ‘90s, going to every punk show I could get into, even if it was sold out. I would draw the stamps pretty well, that kind of thing. So skating and going to shows, doing a fanzine, all of those things were part of my existence at 16/17 years old. Paul was around in 1979-80, I didn’t start going to shows or becoming involved in the scene until the later 80s, I was a little later. But in the same way that our film has these different generations, the two guys making this film are also coming from two different perspectives.
Were there any stories you got through interviews that really surprised you guys, being pretty involved scenesters yourself?
The most surprising thing has been how important one of the places is that we’re covering in the film, Madam’s Organ. It was basically a clubhouse back in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, at 2318 18th Street, in 1980, and it was run by some leftover yippies at the time. It was basically this wild and crazy free space, where people could test out new sounds and really not be judged, and people could just basically form themselves within this space. It was really important, a lot of bands had their first shows there, like Black Market Baby, Teen Idles (Dischord Records/Minor Threat/Fugazi leader Ian MacKaye’s first band) and other bands. Bad Brains were basically the house band. So here was this living room basically, and everyone’s hanging out, and it just became this hive of activity and exchange of ideas. Madam’s Organ had people left over from the sixties that were hanging out there. So you had this incredible coming together of these younger punks that are around 13/14 years old, in bands like the Untouchables, which was Alex MacKayes first band, who played there, and then older generations coming from the late sixties who were still hanging out. Plus you had these political activists such as from the RCP (Revolutionary Communist Party) who were trying to co-opt these kids into their fold. The Teen Idles song Commie Song, that was for them.
It’s interesting because nowadays, as I go to towns and see kids have two or three house show spaces, and four different bars, and an old movie theater or a new dance club or two—that’s great, they have a lot of places to put on shows for new, weird music. But it seems like spaces can get ghettoized, with that place being the indie rock house; and that place being the DJ club; and that place being the punk dive, etc. So sometimes it feels like there’s something to be said for only having one or two spaces in your town, as it often was for new music bands in the early 80s, because then everybody has to figure out a way to get along and present their stuff, because they are all going to end up hanging out together in those one or two “cool” spaces if they want to go do something interesting where the jocks won’t go, you know? In that era especially, the late ’70s to ’80s, even in a town like D.C., which isn’t a tiny town, you’d usually have only one or two places where the freaks could gather.
True. But I think what’s important to keep in mind too is that we definitely aren’t making a nostalgia film. This is a film very much about the present and how a movement can take hold, and what it was that made such a solid foundation in one scene is something that can still happen again. So for us it’s really about creating something that’s still alive today, something not only about the DIY ethic, but about taking control of your existence, which was something that a lot of the people of the different generations were doing back then in D.C. Our town in general was relatively hostile to doing that thing, to building your scene outside of any official framework.
Did Paul ever give you stories that entailed having nowhere to go, or cops busting up parties?
That might be the opposite of what one might expect in D.C.; the cops were very laissez-faire actually. There’s a story that a lot of people here tell and that’ll be in our film, which is about one night when the cops came into Madam’s Organ and Bad Brains were playing a slower section of a song. But then the cops came in, so they switched on a dime and went into overdrive, and the cops just turned around and walked back out.
It’s great how earlier you mentioned “drawing the stamps.” There really is something about figuring out how to get into a place that isn’t all ages. Growing up in Cleveland, there were no all ages places, but you just figured out how to rub your friend’s door stamp on your hand, help a band move in equipment and then hide in the bathroom until show time, or just sneak in a back door, or whatever. It kind of created a weird industriousness about it, like how bad do you actually want to get in and see this stuff?!
(Laughs) It’s true. But once the all-ages thing got going, not only did D.C. become kind of the soundtrack of my youth, but it also was a community that you could dive into. You could go to shows, you could go to the community center shows, you could go to other shows and really be part of what was happening. The shows were getting bigger by that time, by the late-eighties. The all-ages shows politics made a huge difference growing up in this town.
There’re always legendary scenes that, with time and historical coverage, seem like they were these monumental things. But I always hear from older people around here who were hanging at CBGBs back in the day, they always seem to say that the scene was not as big as people think it was, like there were 20, 30 people at best hanging around shows until things really kicked in around 1977, ’78. Was that similar in the early days of D.C. hardcore? I mean, that’s practically a brand name at this point.
Yeah, well back in the late seventies there was a place called The Keg, and that scene was pretty small at the time. I wasn’t there, so I can’t tell you how many people for sure were at the shows. But from accounts, it was basically the amount of local bands that were playing and the community was maybe thirty or so people on top of that.
Do you feel that there’s a pretty vibrant all-ages scene going on now?
Yeah, I would even say there’s a new sense of energy in the D.C. scene, but one thing I’ve noticed is that, maybe now with the gap between the older generation we’re talking about and the new generation of younger bands coming up, that there’s maybe less contact between the generations than there was ten years ago. So it’s going to be interesting to see how that evolves. There’s a new hardcore scene coming up in D.C., it’s just a lot of subgenres. There’s also more of a young white population base now than there was when I was a kid, so that’s changed the dynamic of the music scene as well.
How do you think that’s changed it?
I think the actual urban music scene is bigger than it was when I was a kid, so that’s had its positives and negatives.
From what you know, what was the Adams Morgan neighborhood like then and now?
Adams Morgan was a pretty rough neighborhood in the seventies. But you also had a lot of mixed groups of people there, it had a Hispanic population, an African American population, artists, that kind of thing. The neighborhood, compared to some neighborhoods in D.C., held out better than some to this day. It certainly doesn’t resemble Georgetown, there’s no J-Crew or Gap or that sort of thing there. It certainly doesn’t resemble the fourteenth street corridor. But it still has that international flavor to it, even though it’s changing fast. It has a lot of yuppie restaurants, so it’s not the same rough neighborhood it was back then.
Whatever happened to the Madam’s Organ space itself?
Well the Madam’s Organ name has been co-opted by this blues bar that has nothing to do with the original Madam’s Organ. They took the name, but it’s not the same place, not the same location, totally different story. The original building is still there, there’s actually a cupcake store upstairs and a hair salon on the first floor. So the building itself still stands.